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Playwright Explores Lebanon's Sectarian Divide

  • Paige Kollock

A country with 18 religious sects and a history of sectarian conflict, Lebanon often seems on the brink of violence. Since the uprising in Syria began more than two years ago, that tension has escalated, especially between Sunni and Shia.

Lebanese playwright and director Yehia Jaber is trying to defuse the tension through theater. In a one-man play, he highlights the history of Tarik al Jadidah, a low-income and predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Beirut that often is seen as a barometer of Sunni sentiment.

The play, Beirut Tarik al jadadih, is one of the many ways Lebanese are dealing with the tension in the country through art.

Actor Ziad Itani is portraying the women in Tarik al Jadidah and the scrutiny they face when it comes to marriage. Societal norms dictate that women must choose the right man, from the right family, and of course, the right sect.

In a one-man play with 14 different characters, the production has brought sectarian slogans and stereotypes from the street to the stage. With stark portrayals of real-life characters, it reveals and subtly mocks the demonization that exists between Lebanon’s sects.

Jaber said the play is an account of the Sunni-Shia conflicts that Lebanon and the Arab world are experiencing.

“Based on my experience as a fighter and survivor of the Lebanese civil war, all wars start as tragic and end comedic," he said. "The outlandish differences between people depicted in the play are an exaggeration of the religious fanaticism we are experiencing. Laughter, for me, is an emergency exit. Laughter can easily get you out of a calamity.”

By recounting the political and social history of the largest Sunni neighborhood in the Lebanese capital, Jaber aims to show how closely connected Lebanese are to one another.

For Itani, a journalist and first-time actor, the play hits close to home. He grew up near Tarik al Jadidah, and has reported on and observed its residents. He said that in the current political climate, satire is proving more effective than political dialogue.

“Over the last three years, the Arab World has been through instability that has provoked changes in the mindsets of every Lebanese and Arab citizen," he said. "The popularity of comedy has proven it has the power to change what is happening in the streets much more than political speeches and protests."

Jaber said all of the characters are based on real-life personalities and that only the names were altered. His goal is to change the way people think by showing them their common history.